There are few media personalities that garner the admiration of Fred Rogers, the legendary host of the children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and I don’t think anyone would say he doesn’t deserve it. Like anyone who was ever a child, I can’t help but relate to Mister Rogers, and he holds a place deep inside my heart.
In the 33 years that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” ran, and the countless years that it will continue to run in syndication, the show hasn’t left a single child who was untouched by Fred Rogers message. He was pure being, an embodiment of love and kindness that few will ever be.
I don’t think anyone needs me to continue to shower the man with compliments, and while I could write an entire article dedicated to doing just that, I think I would be preaching to the choir.
Instead, I’m going to politicize a beloved and generally apolitical figure to make my own personal and selfish point. I warned you ahead of time.
I’m doing this because I think Fred Rogers is the representative to make an important point — to carefully remind us of what it means to want to be a neighbor.
Rogers lived his life on the principle of loving one’s neighbor. I don’t think anyone can read the phrase “Won’t you be my neighbor?” without hearing his gentle, caring voice slightly over-annunciating each word in a way that shows intentionality. It’s a voice that might mislead someone to understate how serious Rogers was when he asked that question.
In an interview, when asked what the question “Won’t you be my neighbor?” really meant to him, Rogers answered “I suppose it’s really an invitation, an invitation for somebody to be close to you.” It’s an answer that reflects his education as a Presbyterian minister. The word in the Bible often translated into “neighbor,” both in Hebrew and Greek, could be more literally translated as “near” or “next to.”
“To love one’s neighbor” means to love who is near to you, though that definition is deceivingly narrow. Certain people (no one specific) might argue this means only those near to you, the person across the street — a literal neighbor. But that was never how it was meant to be understood. No such concept would have existed to the nomadic people who wrote down the command. Those near were constantly in flux.
Rather, it’s a word based around community, and it gets to the root of Rogers’s invitation. “Neighbor” is almost as much of a command as “to love” — a command to bring others near to you, so that you can love them. It’s an invitation to be close to somebody.
Mister Rogers felt that the ability to be close to someone wasn’t limited by distance. A pioneer in the era of mass media, Rogers understood that when he asked someone to be his neighbor, he was asking somebody who could be geographically separated from him by miles to still be close to him. Rogers, perhaps sooner than anyone else, understood how a world where our connections have become far reaching and global doesn’t stop us from bringing them near.
Rogers’s neighbor was anyone that he had ever connected with, even if they had never met. It didn’t matter to him who they were or what they believed. Despite differences in race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation or politics, Rogers would invite them to be part of his neighborhood.
Which brings me toward a second and somewhat jarring point that Fred Rogers, the Christian minister and life-long Republican, is a conservative in every sense of the word. I bring this up because I want to point out that conservatism does not not require hate. There is nothing contradictory in being both conservative and loving your neighbor.
At the same time, as pushes for punishment are brought against certain groups that label themselves as conservative (no one specific), I think we need to be careful that those pushes are limited in scope, and do not punish conservativism in general. There are people who did something wrong and they deserve to be punished, but that punishment should not limit the rest of conservatives’ rights to organize or participate on campus, as long as they continue to uphold the same standards of neighborly love that they have always exhibited. There is nothing worth villainizing in conservatism.
We can only heal divisions by growing closer together, and in that, Mister Rogers’ invitation to be a neighbor should resonate through all of us. We are neighbors on Creighton’s campus, and far beyond it.